I gave birth to two of my three children in France (the third in Switzerland), and had an all-around extremely positive experience. The importance that the European culture and medical system puts on the mother’s health and well-being in all phases of pregnancy and childbirth made me feel safe and taken care of.
France’s infrastructure — including a socialized medical system, low-cost child care, and numerous resources for pregnant women — allows women the time to prepare and recuperate from childbirth and, just as important, to care for the newborn baby.
I’ve never given birth in America, so I can’t speak to how the two compare, for better or for worse. But from living in France for 15 years and my own personal experience having children here, here is what I’ve noticed about how women in France approach childbirth and breastfeeding:
1. Medicalized births are still standard.
France is often regarded as a country that relies wholly on medicalized, medicated births. Epidurals are the norm (“Why go through the pain if you don’t have to?" is the thinking), and inducing babies is also common, likely because it’s easier on the doctor's and patient’s schedule.
However, natural childbirth is no longer entirely rare. French hospitals and clinics are very slowly changing, sometimes allowing natural births to take place in hospitals, and letting parents present a birthing plan — something that was unheard of up to a few years ago.
Personally, I never considered natural childbirth, and since I fell into what the “norm” was in France, it all went as I had wished. I did ask not to be induced if possible, and my wishes were respected.
2. Women tend to stay longer in the hospital after birth.
Twelve years ago, when I gave birth to my oldest, mothers were allowed to stay at the hospital or clinic for up to six days following normal childbirth. So I had my own set of child-care “experts” surrounding me for almost a week before I had to go at it alone! By the time I got home, I felt I had things a bit more under control, and my body was definitely feeling much better.
Today, women in France usually stay three full days (not including the day of the birth). For a cesarean section, it’s at least four.
During this time, aside from being seen by nurses and doctors, first-time mothers are taught how to bathe, dress, and clean a newborn. Women who plan on breastfeeding are given access to a lactation specialist. New mothers are urged to rest, sleep as often as possible, and eat well in order to promote a healthy recuperation.
After childbirth, most women attend 10 sessions with a midwife to help them “reeducate,” or strengthen, the perineum.
3. Mother and baby are kept together in the hospital room.
Rather than separate the mother and baby into different wards, French hospitals typically allow babies born needing medical intervention to stay in a suite with their mother.
For babies that need to stay longer than the standard hospital stay, accommodations are arranged so that families can remain with the baby. This is seen as a crucial component in the baby’s recuperation.
4. Breastfeeding is treated as a personal choice.
According to the World Health Organization, while French women are breastfeeding more today than they were a decade ago, they still fall short of the recommendations: at least six months of breastfeeding.
In France, women often breastfeed just shy of three months. That's because most women return to work at that time, since maternity leave is usually 10 to 13 weeks. Recent stats show that only 19 percent of mothers are still breastfeeding at six months. (For comparison, more than 80 percent of Norwegian mothers are still breastfeeding at six months.)
Why is this? Historically speaking, breastfeeding was all but discounted by the medical community even in the 1970s, and it has taken decades to turn this tide. It wasn't until the 21st century that the French government stepped in to proactively promote breastfeeding.
In my personal experience, the choice to breastfeed was left up to me without any pressure either way. No medical professional ever pushed me to breastfeed or to bottle-feed. Both options were supported.
"If a woman is self-motivated and wants to breastfeed, we support her 100 percent," says Karine Murello Ory, a child-care assistant at the private hospital of Versailles. "But if she doesn’t want to, it makes no sense to force the issue. In this case, both the baby and the mother are better off bottle-feeding.”
5. Midwives play a large role.
After returning from the hospital, all French women have free access to a local midwife, for a minimum of three home visits. Midwives help check on wounds, assist with breastfeeding, answer questions about the baby’s eating and sleeping schedule, and offer a friendly ear in the early, delicate days following childbirth.
For me, the biggest difference my midwife made after childbirth was the moral support she provided. The days following discharge are tough for parents who are still getting used to a newborn. Add on sleep deprivation, body aches, and sometimes a bag of mixed emotions, and having a gentle, experienced professional to talk to can be a huge boost to morale.
Midwives are often mothers themselves and have an ability to relate to their patients as health care professionals and human beings. They also allot more time to house calls than a rushed medical rendezvous with a gynecologist or pediatrician.
6. Women attend “perineum reeducation” sessions after birth.
After childbirth, most women attend 10 sessions with a midwife to help them "reeducate," or strengthen, the perineum and pelvic floor. This rééducation périnéale is paid for by the state and is often seen as a necessary preventive measure for issues like urinary incontinence.
I've found that Anglophones in France often find this practice somewhat invasive and awkward. Yet after having several children, going through the relatively painless sessions with the midwife — think strength training for your private parts either using a type of wand, or even the midwife's fingers — are worth it in the long run.
Following this practice, most women will also seek a professional to help them re-strengthen the abdominal muscles, also covered by the universal health care system.
7. There’s a growing awareness of postpartum depression.
Twelve years ago, when I visited my gynecologist for the routine post-childbirth checkup, he didn’t really ask much about my moods or how I was coping.
Today however, things are changing for the better in France. Midwives taking care of women after birth are trained to detect symptoms of postpartum depression. “Midwives are probably best situated to spot cases of postpartum depression because of their close proximity to mothers following childbirth,” says Dr. Susanne Braig, medical director of Gynecology, Obstetrics, and Pediatrics at Annecy Hospital in Haute Savoie. “We also try to pre-empt the severity with well-rounded support from the necessary professionals before the baby arrives.”
More than anything, it’s important for a woman to feel safe, understood, and taken care of when experiencing something as vulnerable as giving birth and raising a child. Wherever you’re giving birth, make sure you surround yourself with a positive support system.
Rebeca Plantier is a journalist and author of French School Lunch, a two-year research project on France’s public school lunch program promoting health and wellbeing in children. She writes about about healthy living, travel, parenting and the French lifestyle—and her work has appeared on various sites, such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Salon, EatLocalGrown, travel site Matador Network and many others. Find her at rebecaplantier.com.